Originally posted on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 11/28/11

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 25: Carolina Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford speaks on the phone during the 2010 NHL Entry Draft at Staples Center on June 25, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

After weeks of speculation that Coach Paul Maurice’s tenure in Raleigh was drawing to a close, General Manager Jim Rutherford pulled the trigger this morning and fired his friend, the long-time coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. Soon after, the club announced that the former assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens Kirk Muller was the man brought in to take the reins.

The Hurricanes have struggled to gain anything resembling momentum this season, earning just 9 out of 30 points in the last thirty days. Often the losses were ugly with the players skating poorly, confused about their assignments, with defensive breakdowns a constant theme. The franchise center Eric Staal’s poor start generated more stories in the press than the Canes did wins during this stretch. For a team like the Canes, run on a shoestring budget, any failure can spin quickly into a system-wide collapse.

While few believed that Maurice had lost the team’s respect, (no NSFW expletives were seen coming from the players on the bench) whatever Mo was saying wasn’t convincing his crew that they could and should win a hockey game.

Carolina today sits in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, with their playoff chances stuck below 5%. Rutherford may be both loyal and patient to a fault, but he wasn't willing to waste another season without moving decisively. With the replacement identified, following a month long search, he had to move now if anything can be salvaged of the Carolina 2011-12 season.

Kirk Muller, regarded one the new young blue-chip coaches in the NHL, brings a resume that includes a 19 year NHL career, a Stanley Cup ring (Montreal 1993 – scoring the Cup winning goal in fact) and 6 times an All-Star, all of which began when he was drafted 2nd overall (to Mario Lemieux) in 1984. After five years assisting in Montreal, Muller was reportedly interviewed last spring for 4 out of the 5 NHL bench boss vacancies. When none of those came through, he accepted the head coaching role for the Predators’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee last June.

Hints that Coach Mo might be handed an early exit were evident 6 months before today’s news. Maurice’s 3-year contract was set to expire at the end of the current season but after a crushing loss in game 82 last April which meant no playoffs for the young team, the priority of getting off to a strong start early in 2011-12 was high in Raleigh. As the team’s playoff hopes grew slimmer as the season fell apart in November, the need for change was obvious.

Were the problems in Carolina all about Maurice? Of course not, but it was evident that a new voice and maybe even more importantly a fresh set of eyes need to be introduced. Many of Carolina’s highly touted young prospects seemed to have stalled in their development and, with Maurice on the hot seat to win early and often, they couldn’t seem to break through to earn NHL ice time requisite to making the leap.

Maurice has over 1000 NHL games of experience to draw from, but at 44 (ironically one year younger than Muller) he would fall back to his tried-and-tired methods when under pressure, unwilling to bend from his well-worn solutions.

From the perspective of Karmanos and Rutherford partnership, going with Muller is a big step for an organization that has always seemed more a family business, with a front office populated by former players and coaches at every level. In contrast, Kirk Muller has only distant connections to the team. But he has seen enough hockey – and from every possible angle - that he will be expected to bring that new vision of what is possible with the existing roster, a fresh voice to articulate his plan for them and, one could expect, the identify what is missing to make a difference.

Looking at the big picture, Jim Rutherford has invested heavily in recent years with lengthy high-dollar contracts for his franchise cornerstones Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, both of whom are 27 and are coming into their prime. By giving his new coach a contract that goes to 2015, Rutherford has entrusted Kirk Muller to make that investment a success. Carolina hockey fans are hoping that he does exactly that. In fact, winning can’t come soon enough.

Photo credit: Getty Images
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